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September 2003 • Vol 3, No. 8 •

Have We Forgotten Anger in Their Eyes?

By James L. Larocca

Ordinarily, our boats patrolled Vietnam’s rivers in pairs. But on this night we had several teams operating together as we launched the Pentagon’s latest ingenious scheme for winning the war in the Mekong Delta.

The concept was simple enough: instead of surprising people with conventional gunfire during raids, the boats would first set the houses and buildings on fire with bows and arrows. The brass called this early version of “shock and awe” Operation Flaming Arrow.

Of course, the flimsy huts burned like matchbooks, leaving the families homeless and destitute. The next day, civil action teams of GIs would arrive bearing sheets of corrugated tin for new roofs and bags of rice to help the villagers get started again. There would also be bars of Dial soap and clothing from church groups in the states.

I remember a particular time when, with the fires still smoldering in the stultifying heat of a Delta morning, the teams distributed boxes of heavy sweaters.

I’m sure the church folks back home felt good about their gifts. But we shared with the villagers a sense of absolute mystification at a policy that would burn down people’s homes in the middle of the night, then give them tin and soap and sweaters to rebuild their lives.

Our government called it “pacification.” We called it madness. It all has come back to me while watching the news from Iraq, where we should be applying more of the lessons so painfully learned in Vietnam. Instead, we seem to be repeating our mistakes.

What I remember most from those nights are the faces—and the eyes. The children would be terrified, but also oddly fascinated in that way that kids have.

The mothers, beyond ordinary fear, would be wildly angry, often unleashing a flood of invective that, of course, none of the Americans could specifically understand because no one spoke the language.

The old widows—there seemed to be one in every hut—would look at you with the cold, dead eyes of people who had been violated forever and seemed to expect always to suffer.

But mostly I remember the men, who, if they hadn’t slipped away when the mess began, would be taken by the American troops for interrogation.

Usually, several young soldiers would throw the man down while yelling the few Vietnamese phrases they knew. At least one would hold a rifle to his head. Another might stand on his neck. His hands would be bound behind his back. He would be wrenched up into a kneeling position. Many times he would be blindfolded.

Eventually a “pacification” team member would come along and question the man in Vietnamese. He would be asked to show his papers – documents, which, more often than not, had been lost in the fire. He would be yelled at, cursed at, and sometimes spit on. Many times he would be kicked and punched.

Those lucky enough to have the right kind of documents and otherwise convince the Americans of their innocence (of what?), would be released.

Then you would see it. In the eyes. The clean, white fury of men who have been reduced to abject humiliation and powerlessness in front of their families. The hatred in their eyes would be as pure as any you would ever see. It would last forever. You would never forget it.

I saw those eyes again the other day on the evening news. A group of young American soldiers, sent by their government to go house to house in a sweltering Baghdad suburb, had kicked in a door and rousted a family. The children were terrified, crying. The mother was furious, screaming. The eyes of the GIs were filled with confusion and shame at what they were being made to do by their government.

And the father, down on the ground in front of his house with a kid from Arkansas or Detroit or California standing on his neck, showed in his eyes the kind of white-hot hatred that will take a thousand years to extinguish.

President George W. Bush, who spent almost all of his military service out of uniform and involved in political campaigns in the South, and Vice President Dick Cheney, who never served at all (he had, in his words, “other priorities”), would do well to consider the lessons of Vietnam.

We did not win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people because we occupied their country while we burned down their homes and killed them and brutalized and abused them.

We will not win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people by wrecking their towns and cities, destroying their homes, terrorizing their families and humiliating their men. Incredibly, we have again become an occupying army, out of touch with the realities of the lives and culture of the people we are there to save. Not surprisingly, the Iraqi people are striking back.

Last week, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the chief commander of allied forces in Iraq, said “maybe our iron-fisted approach to the conduct of ops is beginning to alienate Iraqis.” Perhaps today’s Army is remembering the eyes.

James L. Larocca, a professor of public policy at Southampton College, was a naval officer in Vietnam during 1967-68.

Newsday, August 13, 2003





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